Historically a bottom-tier SEC team, Vanderbilt’s start to the 2016 season wasn’t promising.
The Commodores came in at No. 10 in the SEC preseason coaches poll, a tad higher than expected after the loss of several key seniors and leading scorer Simone Charley from a team that finished eighth a year ago. An overtime victory at Miami (OH) yielded some positive signs after a pair of exhibition clunkers against Southeast Missouri State and Furman, but the ‘Dores still had problems.
Those problems bubbled to the surface in the team’s second game of the year, a 2-0 road loss to Lipscomb. If that game was any indication, Vanderbilt had a long and onerous 18-game schedule ahead of it.
“I’ve said it since I came here, there’s a lack of competitive fire about our kids, and we’ve got to change that,” head coach Darren Ambrose said following the loss. “… They still think they’re coming into some kind of kickabout on a Sunday afternoon. Those kids from Lipscomb want to beat us, and we don’t understand that when we put this jersey on, you better be prepared to fight a little bit harder, because everyone wants to beat you.”
Things certainly have changed over the past two-plus months. The Commodores jumped out to a 4-1 record in SEC play and beat Texas A&M, one of the nation’s premier programs, along the way. Vanderbilt faded a bit down the stretch to finish 5-5-1 in league play, but the team’s sixth-place finish far outpaced expectations from early in the season.
Now, Vanderbilt faces a new challenge as it takes on No. 18 Arkansas in the SEC tournament quarterfinals on Wednesday afternoon. Following that 4-1 start to league play, it was the Razorbacks who ended the Commodores’ four-game conference win streak with a dominating 4-0 win in Fayetteville Oct. 6. Vanderbilt, one of the league’s youngest teams, must reverse that result against one of the SEC’s most experienced teams if it hopes to advance to Friday’s semifinals.
“We took it on the chin,” Ambrose said of the Arkansas loss. “… I think we were a bit overwhelmed with the way they played. … It just spiraled.”
Arkansas’ heavy reliance on set pieces makes it one of the more unique teams in the conference. The Hogs rank second in the SEC with 138 corner kicks on the year, and coach Colby Hale’s emphasis of the long throw-in means Arkansas sends plenty of balls into the 18-yard box. Vanderbilt struggled defensively on set pieces in the teams’ first meeting, as all four Razorback goals resulted from dead-ball situations.
“On set pieces if you don’t have that discipline, against a team that has it, you’re going to concede,” Ambrose said. “And for them, that is a team that thrives on that, and if you don’t pay attention and do what you’re supposed to do, you’re gonna give [goals] up.”
The Razorbacks’ height may pose a problem for Vanderbilt’s back line. Arkansas rotates in multiple players 5’10” or taller, and VU doesn’t have that same luxury. Vanderbilt doesn’t list its players’ heights on its roster, but Commodore center backs Cristina De Zeeuw and Kacy Scarpa stand at about 5’8” and 5’5”, respectively. Winning battles in the air could prove difficult, but doing so may be necessary if the Commodores hope to keep the Arkansas attack in check.
This time, however, the game will be played at neutral-site Orange Beach, Alabama, rather than at Arkansas. The ‘Dores had success last year in Orange Beach with a 2-1 first-round win over Georgia before losing a tight 2-1 contest to No. 1 seed Florida, a team that went on to the NCAA Sweet 16. A win over the Hogs would likely pit Vanderbilt against the second-seeded, 13th-ranked Auburn Tigers in the semifinals.
With a 9-8-1 record and an RPI ranking of 76, it’s unlikely that Vanderbilt can make the NCAA tournament without winning an automatic bid as SEC tournament champions. Regardless, the program’s highest finish in SEC play since 2006 represents real success, a possibility few saw coming early in the year.
“I also think [a top-half SEC finish] is a statement for the improvement in our program,” Ambrose said. “… We still have a ways to go, but what we’ve shown this year is that we can deal with losses, and we can learn, and we can get better and our kids have done that. And as a result, they’ve put themselves in a terrific position. Now the next step in our evolution is playing in games that matter, with something on the line, and getting something out of those games.”
The ‘Dores get a shot to take that next step this coming week in Orange Beach.